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Published:April 16th, 2007 06:27 EST
Do we need editors?

Do we need editors?

By Djelloul (Del) Marbrook (Editor/Mentor)

(Transcript of Hot Copy, No, 22, Del Marbrook`s weekly podcast.)

I`ve been working with the student collaborators of The Student Operated Press long enough now to discern a pattern of behavior among them that surprises and disquiets me. It raises the question, What is the role of the editor in the digital era?

Let me backtrack before I press home my point.

I learned my journalism first from the Navy and its superb handbooks on journalism. I commend them to you. The journalist petty officers who were my seniors examined my  stories, photo captions and headlines and either let them stand or changed them. They were my first editors.

Then I discovered another way to learn from editors. I carefully studied what local newspapers did with the press releases and photographs and captions the Navy sent them. I studied every change, no matter how small. I asked myself why they used certain material and not other material, why they changed stories, headlines and captions, what they liked and didn`t like.  I even studied their punctuation, down to the last comma. That`s how I learned to streamline punctuation. Later it helped me as a poet.

When I went to work for The Providence Journal, I learned from my bureau chiefs, my colleagues, rewrite men and women, copy editors and assignment editors. I asked myself why they thought the way they did, why they liked this story but not that story. I put the changes they made to my copy under a microscope. I tried to figure out at what point they decided I deserved a byline.

Of course I picked certain mentors over others. And certain colleagues and superiors were more willing than others to teach me. But from the moment I picked up my first Navy handbook to the day I ran an entire news operation myself it never occurred to me that anything I wrote was inviolable, not subject, that is, to editing by someone else. When I was the executive editor of a newspaper and wrote something for that newspaper I still submitted my work to the copy desk. Of course they had to consider that I was the boss, and of course that consideration affected their decisions. But it was important for them to know I was the sort of colleague who respected their function and was willing to be edited by them. And it was important for me as a writer to have the assurance that some egregious mistake I might have made would be caught and fixed by my colleagues.

No matter how many times a story is edited there will almost always be something that needs correcting, something not quite right. But journalism is by its nature a matter of compromise. In order to meet deadlines you have to let a story go at some point, even when you still want to tweak it. Some stories can`t be spiked. " In the old days a story on paper that wasn`t going to be used or was going to be used later was literally impaled on a spike on an editor`s desk. But if the story is about breaking news or something competitors are likely to publish, then you have to run it. If you don`t like the way a reporter has handled it, you turn it over to a rewrite person or you rewrite it yourself. There is no time to discuss such an issue. Either the reporter can fix the problem or somebody else will. But there is no room for debate.

This is not the ethic I am experiencing as a mentor for The Student Operated Press. I have on several occasions had the experience of editing a story or article only to see the writer submit the original version to the press. The writers have always been cordial and thanked me for my editing and my suggestions, but they have not accepted my editing or pursued my suggestions. So in good journalistic fashion I ask myself what is going on here? Why would a student learning his trade ignore the editorial work and guidance of someone who had spent a long career working for good newspapers?

Is it pride of authorship? Vanity? Or is it a misunderstanding of the editorial function? Or is it that journalism is changing and the Internet is publishing raw material without benefit of professional editing? Or is it perhaps a combination of all these factors?

We all experience pride of authorship. We must have pride in our work. But should we defend it against the experience and savvy of our editors? Should we dismiss their perfecting of our work on the arguable ground that journalism has changed and editors are no longer as important as they once were? What is the function of the editor in this new and fast-changing environment? Are we about to drop the word entirely in favor of the more bureaucratic content manager "? Will there be assignment content managers and managing content managers and executive content managers, and what will these new titles mean? Will content get the kind of scrutiny that it is still getting on the best newspapers, or will it get the kind of inadequate scrutiny it is now getting on our denuded and increasingly poor newspapers?

I believe the fact that the mega-corporations who now control the media have reduced newsroom staffing in the interests of maximizing profits is in fact encouraging a denigration of the editing process. I don`t see how it can be otherwise. I suspect but can`t prove that the fact that universities are behaving more and more like these corporations is also changing the newsroom ethic, and not for the better.

To me it`s obvious that a young journalist who is not assiduously listening to the advice of his own editors is not going to be a particularly good listener as he or she gathers and writes a story.

There was a point in my career when on rare occasion I might argue with an editor about a change in my story or a suggestion. There was always some risk, because the editor was my superior in most cases. But as I grew in confidence I did once in a while decide that an editor was wrong and then I would politely explain my viewpoint. That`s collegial give and take, and if there is mutual respect, it works very well. If you consider the Watergate story you will remember many such instances between Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein and their editors at The Washington Post. At times their disagreements were intense. The two reporters had a responsibility to get the facts, but their editors had a responsibility to protect the newspaper and the public against reportorial missteps. It`s a vibrant and "so I always thought "a necessary tension.

So what is going on when I edit a story, hoping to smooth it out, improve it, correct infelicities in grammar and structure, suggest a new line of inquiry "and the writer thanks me very much and submits the original version anyway? Does it hurt my feelings? No. I`ve lived a long time and edited a lot of copy, much of it from prize-winners like Mary McGrory. But it does make me wonder, and it does worry me.

Why have these students not learned in their college courses that this is the normal course of journalistic work? Or have they learned it and simply decided it doesn`t apply here? I don`t know. But all of us should ponder these questions.

There is no doubt that bottom-line corporate management has eaten away at editorial standards. When I was a young man you could pick up most books in a book store and be very hard put to find typos and poorly edited sentences. Today it`s commonplace, and consequently the book as an object of art has suffered. It`s long-term value has been compromised. Similarly, there is much bad writing and sometimes no editing at all on the web.

But if editors are going to become a luxury the media can`t afford, or don`t choose to afford, then sooner or later the media`s special prerogatives under the First Amendment are going to be reexamined. This is a question for the entire industry to consider "you, your professors, the universities for whom they work, the media they ultimately serve. Are we going to use the worldwide web as a repository for raw material, or do we still have a responsibility to corroborate and edit this material as well as we can? The web is already a kind of information landfill. On the other hand, there is a great deal of recycling going on and this does lead to a certain amount of reexamination and refinement of the material.

I don`t bring up this subject as a rebuke or complaint. I bring it up as a puzzle which I think we could all usefully address. And while we are addressing it, I think we have to ask ourselves whether our schools are doing their jobs properly and whether their students care. Are the schools merely diploma mills, giving the students the credentials they need to earn a good living, or do they have the social and moral obligation to properly educate their students and not to give them these credentials until they have earned them?

The complaint I have nursed for a long time against the journalism schools is that they instill grandiose notions in the heads of their students so that the student who winds up reporting on the town council in Dorset, Vermont, thinks he belongs in Washington covering some huge scandal without realizing that he wouldn`t have a clue how to cover that scandal if he didn`t learn how in Dorset. I`ve harbored the idea that small-town journalism isn`t getting enough respect in the schools or anywhere else. But I am convinced that without good small-town journalism the future of our republic is in doubt.

So think about that when you contemplate the future of the Internet. There is no reason good Internet newspapers can`t be covering local news, and in many places it`s happening. It`s happening and I greet it as a blessed event. We`re a nation of hometowns, from Dorset to Manhattan, and having our newspapers harvested into a few hands is not good for us.

Well, who the heck is Del Marbrook to raise these hifalutin issues anyway? Good question. I`ll answer it. I`ve hired more than a few journalism school graduates and more often than not I have been appalled by the fact they couldn`t spell properly or parse sentences. So I think I have earned the right to raise the question. After all, these students cost me money, time and aggravation, and they cost our employers the same. How hard was it for their professors to figure out they couldn`t spell properly?

I used to watch these youngsters once they had gone to work for me. They were on probation for several months, so they bore watching, and it was my job and that of the other editors to watch them. I made it a point of putting a big, expensive dictionary on a podium in the middle of the newsroom, and I made sure every member of the newsroom had a paperback dictionary to hand. The first thing I noticed was that only the old-timers, like me, visited the big dictionary. Of course, the young reporters might have been referring to online dictionaries, but I somehow doubted it.

So I decided on another test. I insisted that anything read in or removed from the newspaper`s library "the libraries used to be called morgues "had to be signed for. My next big shock was how little the young journalists were using their own newspaper library. Did this mean they were contemptuous of all those reporters and editors who had filled the library with files that amounted to the entire history of the community? Or did it mean that the habit had simply not been instilled in them, in which case it was my duty to instill it?

One small thing I noticed is that magic thinking was playing a role in this disheartening scenario. The reporters, subconsciously at least, seemed to believe that bad copy put into their computers would somehow come out good copy. They had not been imbued with the rubric, Garbage in/garbage out. They seemed to think something magical would happen to their poor copy en route to the reader. Well, that something magical happens to be editing, the very same editing they and their media bosses are becoming contemptuous of.  No spell checker or grammar checker is going to make bad writing copy good.

Some of the reporters I told you about had to be let go during their probations. It was sad, because they had good credentials, recommendations from their professors, and high hopes.  I let them go not because they hadn`t been taught to appreciate editing but because something in their mindsets told them they were right and I was wrong, and since it was my job to produce a good newspaper I felt I had no choice but to send them off, presumably to not-so-good newspapers. I could have been wrong, or they could have learned more from a better editor, or at least an editor whom they liked more. But there simply was no excuse for lack of ordinary diligence. And that is the issue I`m raising today with you.

Knock your bosses out with your good spelling and grammar, with your graceful writing. Don`t try to slip bad copy past them for whatever reason. Of course you have an ego, but you have to temper it with the knowledge that a reporter who won`t learn from his peers and superiors won`t learn very much from his sources either. Pigheadedness is of no use to you in this profession, and probably not in any profession.